• The Secret Books
    The Secret Books
    by Jorge Luis Borges, Sean Kernan
  • Among Trees
    Among Trees
Teaching and Lecturing

The Robert Frank Interview

I did this interview at a point when Robert Frank was perhaps not as legendary as he is now, and as a result he is quite relaxed and open. Worth a read for the insights into the photographer.

(There are a couple of different links here, since some people had problems with the first one I posted.



Three stories with a lot to teach creative photographers.

I've been working on a book about creativity in photography for a long time, about a year writing and thirty years before that figuring it out. I'll be posting links to chapters from time to time, and this is the first link, though it's a actually a later chapter.

It begins like this:

Why do we take pictures? To have pictures? I doubt that. Look at the overwhelming number of pictures that people take and upload every day. We probably have quite enough to last us a long while.

So what, what, WHAT is it that so compels us about taking a photo that is really good, really alive? What does making that kind of picture do for you? Or to you? In you? Does it happen even if no one else sees it?

Is having a wonderful picture occur like what happens when something you’re struggling to write suddenly stands up and speaks on its own? Or when you heave yourself over the edge of a tall rock wall, collapse and lie there breathing the sunset light? Or when you work out a beautiful way to show something that is not beautiful at all? 

Where do we go when we do these things? 

And who comes back, the same person? Or someone else?

Read the rest of the chapter here. It's called Ways Photography Works...On Us, and if you have any response or thoughts, let me know. .



Think Inside the Box

It's boon sooo long since I posted I'm kind of ashamed, but I'm working on a book about creativity, and will put up bit of that soon. Meantime, here's a short thought about the commercial side of photography and its effect.

Spend your days making work to fit your client’s visions? That’s how we do our business, but it’s not how we started. Most of us began by simply looking around, seeing what was out there and making pictures out of it. No clients to second guess.

It’s not so easy in the midst of a career to return to that kind of spaciousness and harvest that open-ended seeing. Paradoxically, though, you can do it by choosing a narrow door and entering it briefly for a while. Just pick a time of day and any place at all and take photos then and there. Do it, say, four times a week.

That’s the whole formula, right there. I had a student who did this years ago. She photographed a single room at dusk for a month. She had no outcome in mind, but she trusted that something might happen and she wanted to see what it might be.

What she got was a series of luminous and enchanting photos of light changing and transforming a space over time. It was a long and beautiful visual poem.

I’ve assigned this kind of thing time and again and it is a wonderful way to allow unexpected work to emerge. It doesn’t even take a lot of time. I learned a lot from this student, which is the way teaching goes if you’re doing it right.

Recently I snapped a single interesting photo on a walk near my house recently, and now I’m months into a project I call Winter Light. It is better than anything I had in mind on that walk, and it leads me picture by picture..

Which, now that I think of it, is just the way I started in photography.

So think up a box for yourself, jump into it and see what you can find in that space. It’ll be more than you think.


Sean Kernan


Here's something to try that would seem quite radical if It weren't so simple.

First, find an environment that is big enough to let you move around in it. Then find an object or feature on which to fix your gaze. Do that for a few moments, then pull your focus back so that it falls half way between you and the object. Stay with that long enough to get steady with that.

Now, without moving the center of your gaze from the object, shift your awareness out as far to the right as you can. Don't try to look at things, just notice  them…shapes, light, energies.

You will probably find yourself wanting to move your eyes and look at things in your normal way, which functions kine of like one of those park attendants picking up paper with a nail on the end of a stick. Don't do that. Just stay in a kind of soft-focus awareness.

Alright, now let that view go and shift your awareness to your left, holding your gaze on the same central object and still pulled half way back. Again, notice the shapes and energies in the left field.

After a minute or so of this, let your awareness go out to both left and right. Notice where the two sides differ, if they do.

Now slowly begin to move through the space while keeping your focus on the center and your awareness on the peripheries. The shapes and energies will start to shift in relation to each other and to you. And once you get close to whatever object you've been using as an anchor, turn and find something that is more distant and start to move toward it, awareness still on the peripheries that you now see. Watch the flow of things changing as you move.

Now for the most important part. Notice your own cognitive state. You will tend to find that you are not thinking  the way you usually do about what you see. You'll just notice things without commenting to yourself about them or following them with your thoughts. It is a kind of unanchored state of awareness.

You'll likely find this is hard to maintain. There is a strong pull back toward your normal way of seeing/commenting.

So just and just go back to your usual way. And notice the difference.

Then, after a while, try the exercise again, perhaps in a different place. And just be aware of how your mind works when you do this.

In fact, I think we all do this, and it provides a kind of undertone of wider awareness to our  consciousness. It is seeing.

Perhaps this is what Paul Valery meant when he said "Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees."


Acts of Creation

I've been making notes on how to get the essence of my class into the form of a book. It is really complex and difficult to try to make an equivalent for the experience of a class, but until I manage it I thought I'd post some of the fragments here.

What happens when the great create?

It gets going out of something so very little as to be almost nothing…or perhaps actually nothing.

Think back, think of someone else sitting there trying to catch the thing that is dancing on the edge of their awareness. They want to reach out and grab it and set it down. So they think and think.

Let’s see…

Something big is happening, you just know it somehow.

It's like a great wind is blowing, and you just know what it means…you feel it.

But you don't know how you know.


“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”


To begin my story, let me tell you a little about myself. Who am I? A wanderer. An outcast, cursed by I know not what, or at least that's the way it feels to me. But I don’t know why. (Oh, how do I get this going?)

“Call me Ishmael.”


Now Bottom comes back to himself  after having his mind completely scrambled all during a midsummer’s night with Titania. So how does he describe his vision/experience?

“No eye has seen nor ear heard what mine have…”

No, Bottom would never be so…self-aware. Too much of a dolt. Eye, ear…


“The eye of
man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen,
man’s hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive,
nor his heart to report, what my dream was.”

Just garbled enough, but still it is clear.


The point is you need to begin by sittting with your paper and pen, or walk with your camera (or sit with your camera, walk with your paper). Do it. Do it wrong. Do it again. Again, do it until it surprises you, looks like some poltergeist did it.

Have you had this experience while photographing in some situation? Or in editing, have you placed an image next to another and suddenly both make sense in a way that they didn’t separately?

You don’t have to do anything to provoke this. It's already there in you. Just allow it.

(Thanks for the purported examples above to Bob Dylan, Herman Melville, and William Shakespeare.)


I'll post more from time to time.